Pet Shop Boys: Very (Parlophone, CD/LP/ tape). Not for the first time, it's just when Tennant and Lowe seem at their least serious that they demand most attention. 'Yesterday, When I Was Mad', which on first hearing seems almost deliriously flippant, actually finds the Pet Shop Boys on the brink of throwing in the towel, before they come to their senses. This is undoubtedly their finest and most moving album to date.
Orbital: Orbital (Internal, CD/LP/tape). 'Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day,' intones a disembodied voice at the start of the celestial 'Planet of the Shapes'. This second album by two Kentish brothers, Paul and Phil Hartnoll, is a disc to go swimming in. Gossamer currents of melody carry you along and the rhythms kiss the skin. Extensive road-testing among those who 'don't normally like this sort of thing' confirms this record as the ideal means of access to the fascinating but shadowy world of electronic listening music.
The Breeders: Last Splash (4AD, CD/LP/ tape). This came out at about the same time as Nirvana's coruscating In Utero, but had less baggage to carry and has lasted better. A triumph of one-fingered guitar playing, casual harmony snags and gleeful garage clatter, Last Splash takes a while to get its hooks into you but much longer to let go. The felicitous if quarrelsome partnership of twin sisters Kim and Kelley Deal is cheering proof that familiarity need not breed contempt.
A Tribe Called Quest: Midnight Marauders (Jive, CD/LP/tape). Slipping out with minimal fanfare at the end of the year, this third album from the sinuous and adept hip-hop quartet from Queens, New York, will linger in the mind when many more loudly hailed rap sensations have long been forgotten. A friendly radio-tone test-signal guides the listener on a daring, bass-heavy voyage through the mysteries of day-to-day life. The sound is deep, the beat is crisp and the lyrics are very, very complicated.
Iris DeMent: Infamous Angel (Warner, CD/LP/tape). Backwoods to the roots, but nobody's redneck, Iris DeMent is the most exciting talent to emerge in years from the indecently healthy US country circuit. A classically austere background of rural poverty, migration and down-home religion has magically given rise to a free-thinking, even mischievous performer. 'I've heard that I'm on the road to purgatory,' she sings on the delightful opening, 'Let the Mystery Be', with a smile in her great, grainy voice. 'And I don't like the sound of that.'
Elmore James & His Broomdusters: The Classic Early Recordings 1951-1956 (Ace, CD only). At a time when the blues has come to stand in television advertising as a shorthand for authenticity, whether the product is jeans or whisky, here is a marvellous half- retrospective of the Mississippi slide-guitarist whose records put the wheels on the British blues boom of the Sixties. You get expert annotation, rare pictures, and three CDs, featuring 70 searing tracks from the Trumpet, Meteor, Flair, Ace, Modern, Kent and Fire catalogues - notably the immortal 'Dust My Broom'.
Mingus Big Band 93: Nostalgia in Times Square (Dreyfus Jazz, CD only). They used to be called 'ghost bands', and usually they're a bad idea. But this recreation of the music of Charles Mingus by a band that plays once a week at a New York cafe manages to bring the unruly genius back to life in big, confident versions of pieces like 'Self-Portrait in Three Colours' and 'Open Letter to Duke'. Trumpeters Jack Walrath and Lew Soloff, and saxophonists Craig Handy and John Stubblefield are among the soloists.
Paolo Conte: 900 (CGD/Warner, CD/tape). His South Bank concert was the event of the year, a breathtakingly successful application of the textures and techniques of early jazz (mostly Morton and Ellington) to the structures of the tango and the saloon-bar ballad. This, the first of the singer-pianist's albums to be released in the UK, is a fine souvenir.
Evan Parker: Conic Sections (Ah Um, CD only). After 25 years of solo improvisation, the British saxophonist is still refining his astonishing technique, still operating at the frontier of musical research. This recital, recorded at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, is evidence of his success - not in box-office terms, maybe, but no less valuable for that.
James Morrison / Ray Brown: Two the Max (East West, CD/tape). A masterful recital of mainstream modernism by the Australian trumpeter, whose bel canto style makes him resemble an updated version of such masters as Bobby Hackett, Clark Terry and Ruby Braff. He's helped by an immaculate rhythm section featuring Brown, a great bassist heard too seldom, and the superb young pianist Benny Green.
Britten: Gloriana. Welsh National Opera / Mackerras (Argo, CD). My overall Issue of the Year - partly because of its historical significance as the long-awaited first recording of a score which should have made it into the studio 40 years ago, but equally because it documents the cream of current English singing in the way that the old Britten opera recordings used to. The cast is superb, led by the magnificent Josephine Barstow. Charles Mackerras, conducting, adds the nihil obstat to classic status.
Britten: The Beggar's Opera. Langridge, Murray, Lloyd / Bedford (Argo, CD). More Britten, and no apology for that - with Haitink's Peter Grimes on EMI and Eliot Gardiner's War Requiem on Deutsche Grammophon it has been an exceptional year for the composer. This is another first recording (from the 1992 Aldeburgh Festival) - of the 1948 realisation whose wildly un-period colouring redeems what otherwise has never failed to strike me as a barren piece. Notable for Philip Langridge's cultivated swagger as Macheath.
Bernstein: On the Town. LSO / Tilson Thomas (Deutsche Grammophon, CD/ tape/video). Not exactly opera but a serious undertaking none the less, this is a spin-off from the semi-staged concert performances last year at the Barbican. It is done with exuberantly laid-back American voices that fuse operatic security with Broadway dazzle, and glamorous playing from the LSO, who might as well be an American big band for all the years they've spent learning to sound like one under Previn, Tilson Thomas and Bernstein.
Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane. Berlin RSO / Mauceri (Decca, CD). One of the releases that launched Decca's long-term survey of music suppressed as 'degenerate' by the Nazis, and an extraordinary piece that out-Strausses Strauss in its outrageous,
slobbering opulence of sound. Mauceri
handles the unwieldy mass of Korngold's
orchestration with a firm hand, and Anna Tomowa-Sintow is allowably grand in the title role. An entertaining curiosity.
Rossini: La Cenerentola. Teatro Communale Bologna / Chailly (Decca, CD). The best Italian bel canto of the year, with an Italian cast featuring two of the finest new- generation Rossinians around: Cecilia Bartoli and Riccardo Chailly. Brilliant, lightly textured, clean-cut, it's preferable to Marriner with the saw-voiced Agnes Baltsa (technically formidable but an acquired taste) on Phillips, and strong competition for Abbado with Berganza (glorious, but 20 years old) on Deutsche Grammophon.
Grieg: Songs. Von Otter / Forsberg (Deutsche Grammophon, CD). Nordic listeners complain to me that Anne Sofie von Otter breaks with performing tradition, and they advance the claims of other song collections which have come out in this Grieg anniversary year (notably, Monica Groop on Bis and Hakan Hagegard on RCA). But von Otter won the 1993 Gramophone award for the outright best issue of the year, and her disc gets my vote too. It is cherishable for its attention to text, radiant expressivity, and inclusion of the lovely Haugtussa cycle.
Henze: 7th Symphony. CBSO / Rattle (EMI, CD). Hans Werner Henze's output hasn't always confirmed the central position he once seemed destined to hold in European music. But the past 10 years have seen a couple of scores of unchallengeable worth, and one of them is this symphony: an apocalyptic statement in the Beethovenian tradition. The CBSO under Simon Rattle read it in vivid terms that ought to turn the ears of anybody even vaguely curious about new music.
Purcell: Complete Anthems and Services, Volume 6. New College Choir / King's
Consort / Robert King (Hyperion, CD). It may sound uninvitingly archival, but this disc is representative of a remarkable edition of Purcell's religious and secular music being put together for the composer's tercentenary in 1995. A fascinating, well-prepared and well-presented project.
Arnold: Concertos for Clarinet, Horn, Flute, Piano duo. London Musici / Stephenson (Conifer, CD/tape). Conifer has done what the larger record companies have not, and recognised that Malcolm Arnold isn't merely an engaging tunesmith but a composer of stature. London Musici plays with commitment and intelligence.
Hugo Wolf: Goethe Lieder. Wolfgang Holzmair / Thomas Palm (Collins, CD). Having written the liner notes for this release, I should declare a personal interest; but it is a masterfully delivered recital from a baritone who to my ear has no equal among the younger generation of lieder singers. Holzmair's fierce intensity and depth of reading challenges the listener with the force of its directness and immediacy. The voice is also (almost incidentally) very beautiful.Reuse content